Refugee camps should give people opportunities, not take them away

After a Thanksgiving spent reveling in gratitude, a Christmas season surrounded by loved ones and a New Year’s celebration filled with confetti and vows to improve ourselves, many of us, myself included, revert to what comes naturally — complaining. It’s cold outside, a friend has been crushed under the weight of their iPhone 6 Plus and the evidence of daily visits to Panda Express are all too obvious along our waistlines. During times like these it’s often useful to remember those who are less fortunate. The images we summon are usually of circumstances that are profoundly negative (starvation, disability, etc.), but the plight of those in refugee camps is another case entirely.

The concept of the refugee camp is a positive one in itself — these places are a refuge for those displaced by war and conflict. But today’s refugee camps are a sad reflection of shoddy, overcrowded spaces absolutely replete with violence and instability. For this reason, efforts should be made to create greater amounts of structure and development within refugee camps so that the people living in them are still afforded basic rights and opportunities.

According to the UN Refugee Agency, there are more than 16.7 million refugees worldwide, and that number jumps to more than 50 million when asylum seekers and the internally displaced are taken into consideration. Of these 50 million people, half are children. To be uprooted from your home and lose your livelihood while in fear for your safety is nothing less than traumatic, and for children who are orphaned and uneducated, the future becomes increasingly bleak. Though refugee camps are designed and may function as a temporary home for displaced persons, they still require the infrastructure necessary to allow citizens to live somewhat normal lives.

Currently, refugee camps are a breeding ground for violence and aggression. The UN Refugee Agency explored the violence in such camps, saying “people escaping conflict often find themselves surrounded by conflict within displacement camps. Not only does the conflict they fled play out in these camps, tensions are further exacerbated by conflicts with the host population, perpetrators and victims living side by side and the presence of other refugees from different countries, communities and ethnicities.”

This was the terrible and unintended consequence of refugee camps placed along the border between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the Rwandan genocide. Those camps became the bases of operation for Hutu militia wiping out the Tutsi population. Refugee camps also tend to be structured like prisons, with curfews and a heavy military presence, while severely lacking in schools and employment opportunities. A National Geographic account of a Syrian refugee camp described the endless lines of displaced persons filing to return to Syria despite the dangers, simply because they couldn’t tolerate being fenced in like animals in the camps.

Some believe giving displaced persons the resources needed to rebuild is sufficient, but what use is money without a functional system? For those who are internally displaced, schools and homes are often destroyed or unavailable, and for external refugees it may be too dangerous to return home and start over at all.

Ideally, war and conflict could be resolved in a timely enough manner that displaced persons would have the means and the freedom to rebuild, but our world is far from perfect. Displacement in times of violence is unavoidable, but if we structure camps in ways that better protect refugees and enable them to pursue education and employment while displaced, they’re one step closer to coming home.

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